Therapists are trained to read between the lines, to watch and listen for signs that something painful may be lurking beneath the surface. So, when someone asks, “How does an unhappy marriage affect you?” we ask more questions than we answer.
No matter what your marriage looks like, you know that you and your partner have developed relational habits unique to your relationship. And you feel the effects of those habits, both emotionally and physically.
To fully appreciate the effects of an unhappy marriage, it helps to give its antithesis, a healthy marriage, a closer look.
The habits of happily married couples probably won’t surprise you. Many are the very practices you envisioned for your lives before you walked down the aisle. Some of the biggies include:
- They focus more on what’s right than what’s wrong.
- They make trust and forgiveness the norm.
- They go to bed at the same time.
- They touch, hold hands and show physical signs of affection.
- They cultivate common interests.
- They are proud to be seen with one another.
This probably sounds more like a list from your dating days than from a decade into marriage. But these habits are important to hold in your mind when you ask, “How does an unhappy marriage affect you?” You need to know that they aren’t merely ideals, unattainable except for those charming old couples who have been married since, well, forever.
These happy couples benefit in more ways than just the emotional. They experience significant health benefits, too.
- They may be less likely to die of cancer. And the benefits of the marriage can be as protective as chemotherapy itself in cancer care.
- They are less likely to die from heart disease and stroke.
- They recover from surgery better.
- They live longer.
- They have better health habits and encourage and support them in one another.
If you’re the one asking, “How does an unhappy marriage affect you?” you probably already have some concerns about the ways you and your spouse relate.
Compared to the above habits of happily married couples, the habits of unhappily married couples are practically the opposite.
- They constantly criticize and find fault. “Having a bad day” gets replaced with character assassination and total lack of respect.
- There is contempt and a feeling of disgust. If trust has been violated by one or both partners, there is no forgiveness, no healing.
- They avoid one another. They may intentionally go to bed at different times and/or in different rooms. They may also use work and other responsibilities as an excuse to be “anywhere but here.”
- They don’t touch or show physical signs of affection. Anyone who has ever been infatuated or in love knows the electricity that can jump off even the slightest graze from the other. Likewise, when there is unhappiness in a relationship, physical touch can be repelling.
- They don’t have sex, or the frequency drops to fewer than ten times per year. It’s not even the frequency itself that matters as much as the agreement between the spouses as to what is enough.
- They don’t spend time together or enjoy one another’s company. They withdraw into their own activities or, worse yet, into the company of others they enjoy more than one another.
- One or both partners is unwilling to get help. If a marriage is going to survive, let alone thrive, both partners have to be willing to examine and work on their own stuff. Thinking that counseling belongs to the other person because “s/he did whatever…is always/never (whatever)…does/doesn’t (whatever)” sets the marriage up to fail.
In couples/marriage counseling, we treat the marriage as its own entity. And it’s the marriage — not individual interests — that is our primary “patient.”
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between happy and unhappy marriages is the presence (or absence) of what John Gottman calls the magic ratio.
In happy marriages, the ratio of positive to negative interactions is 5:1. And there are specific kinds of interactions that he uses as predictors of marital stability or probable divorce. In unhappy marriages, there are far more negative interactions than positive ones.
So, how does an unhappy marriage affect you if you recognize more than a few of the signs and habits of one? You will probably come up with some answers on your own, as you will be feeling the effects, emotionally and physically:
- You feel unhappy or chronically bad.
- You feel exhausted and drained of energy.
- You feel especially vulnerable.
- Your self-esteem is in the gutter.
- You feel anxious and/or depressed.
- You have difficulty concentrating.
- You have frequent and/or lasting headaches.
- You have GI problems (diarrhea, constipation, nausea).
- You have unexplained back and/or neck pain.
- You can’t sleep.
- You get sick more easily and more frequently and don’t seem to fully recover.
- You don’t feel heard or understood. (Your spouse probably feels the same.)
- You may be fantasizing about life without your spouse or life with someone else.
What you may not be aware of are some of the less obvious physical effects that come from being in an unhappy marriage:
- You may take longer to heal from simple wounds. Couples that argue a lot have shown a decrease in pro-inflammatory proteins at wound sites. And those changes, if prolonged, are linked to heart disease, cancer, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
- You may have increased stress levels (and increased stress hormone output), and therefore an increased risk of heart disease, immunosuppression and depression.
- You may experience greater inflammation throughout your body.
- You may have changes in your appetite and eating habits.
- You may not live as long as you would if you were in a happy marriage.
Just as important as asking, “How does an unhappy marriage affect you?” is asking, “What should you do if you’re in one?”
The average unhappy couple waits too long to get help. But some couples recognize the signs and decide they want to save their marriages. And for them, their unhappiness is often a wake-up call that starts them on the path to the happiness they’ve always wanted.